Over the weekend the New York Times created hemispheric buzz. It reported that U.S. officials talked privately this past year with rebellious Venezuelan military officers. Those officers wanted U.S. help to overthrow Venezuela’s socialist president, Nicolás Maduro.
Apparently nothing came of the talks; the Trump Administration declined to help the rogue militares. But the Times story was more evidence that President Trump is exploring unusually strong action to topple Maduro. At the White House last summer, he'd already displayed that impulse.
“We have many options for Venezuela," Trump said then, "including a possible military option if necessary…”
Things are indeed a nightmare in Venezuela; Maduro’s authoritarian regime has destroyed the economy and forced millions of citizens to flee the country. And it’s showing no sign of giving up power. Still, Trump’s notion of invading Venezuela was generally dismissed inside as well as outside the White House.
That is, until a couple weeks ago – when Florida Senator Marco Rubio turned heads in an interview with Spanish-language Univision 23 in Miami.
Rubio stressed the U.S. military should only be used against threats to U.S. security. But in the next breath he said “there’s a very strong argument to make right now that the Venezuelan regime has become” that kind of destabilizing menace to the U.S.
Suddenly invasion seemed an option again – especially since media like the Washington Post report Trump hasn’t let go of the idea at all. Rubio's remarks signaled that people in Washington who share Trump’s more hawkish foreign policy vision may now believe there’s no other option left for Venezuela.
“They’re worried about the futility of the current Venezuela policy choices they have, and so I think they’re going for very controversial ones,” says Christopher Sabatini, head of the New York-based Latin America policy think tank Global Americans.
“A lot of the hardliners want to avoid at all costs a Venezuelan regime that clings to power for 50, 60-some years, like has happened in Cuba,” says Sabatini.
That Cuba warning has hardliners feeling an urgency to at least look toughter on Venezuela and the region's other leftist regimes. Now Trump is expected, perhaps this week, to put one of those hardliners in charge of his Latin America policy: Cuban-American Mauricio Claver-Carone will reportedly head Western Hemisphere Affairs at the National Security Council.
The choice is very popular among hardliners in Claver-Carone’s native South Florida.
“I think that Mauricio will be an incredible asset to implementing the President’s vision,” says Ana Carbonell, a Republican political consultant in Miami and a Cuban exile activist.
Carbonell points out Claver-Carone is a leader of the U.S.-Cuba Democracy PAC, one of the largest foreign-policy political action committees in the U.S. And she stresses he’s spent his career fighting Cuba’s communist regime – which exercises a large political influence over socialist Venezuela and depends to a large degree on subsidized oil imports from that country, which has the world’s largest crude reserves.
“Cuba has trained Maduro’s repressive forces in Venezuela,” says Carbonell. “We seriously have a Venezuela problem, and the root of that problem emanates from Havana.”
REVERSE DOMINO THEORY
Claver-Carone could not be reached for comment. But many Latin America experts say Claver-Carone’s hard Cuba focus is actually one of their chief concerns about him taking over hemispheric policy at the White House.
“Even when he’s focused on other countries, like Venezuela, it’s been through the prism of Cuba,” says Sabatini – meaning, he adds, that when Claver-Carone engages the Venezuela crisis, he may promote tough action more so as a way of punching Cuba.
“Sort of a reverse domino theory,” says Sabatini, “where if you take down Venezuela you’ll get Cuba.”
Claver-Carone supporters like Carbonell insist his policy scope is broader than just Cuba. But either way, other Latin America policy experts say the reality is this:
A U.S. military invasion of Venezuela – or any U.S. intervention – is remote at best. On big reason:
“The United States becomes an occupying force,” says Frank Mora, head of the Latin American and Caribbean Center at Florida International University in Miami.
“That is exactly what we saw in Iraq after our invasion there.”
Shortly after Trump suggested an invasion last year, Mora published an article in Foreign Affairs magazine warning of what he calls the inevitably heavy costs to the U.S.
“If we go full Monty on Venezuela it gets very complicated,” says Mora. “And at a time when we’re running such huge deficits, there is simply no consensus within the U.S. government and the U.S. public for making that kind of commitment in South America.”
Mora says Trump and the hardliners may just be hoping the threat of invasion will persuade Venezuela’s regime to reform.
But if that’s the plan, it’s showing little sign of working.